Captain America and the heroism of empathy


Some of the beautiful pictures you guys sent, made into collages for dad. There’s a whole lot of love glued to these cards!

What an amazing – and surreal – few weeks it has been! The week that #CapForStrat happened, I rattled off three blog posts without thinking too much, carried on the waves of energy that the joy from the outpouring of support from you guys gave me. Since then, I’ve been meaning to write again to update you and thank you properly, once more, for everything you’ve done in being a part of all of this, but for some reason the right words have been coming to me slower, recently.

That, and life has been crazy busy with work, baby, family stuff, and multiple journalists getting in touch wanting to talk about our story – which is fine, and I understand that it is a lovely heartwarming story about a bunch of strangers helping a family out, but there just isn’t a whole lot of spare time or space on my ‘to do’ list at the moment. That is why I wrote a blog post requesting a little sensitivity and privacy – it was just meant as a gentle reminder to people writing about #CapForStrat of the fact that we were never seeking publicity, and that, um… it’s a pretty hard time for all of us at home right now. Obviously.

All of the media coverage and interest has been an entirely separate entity from the mission to make it possible for dad to see The Winter Soldier and to gather some cheering up pictures for him, all of which it took under 48 hours to achieve (amazing, right?!). That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, at all – I’m very glad if our story can help raise prostate cancer awareness, and warm some hearts. But it’s really made me appreciate those journalists (like this lovely lady from the Denver Post) who have been particularly sensitive in their write-ups of it all to how time and energy poor we are all feeling at the moment, and how we’d really like all the unexpected global attention to go towards prostate cancer awareness. We’re trying to hand over any momentum left from the campaign to Prostate Cancer UK and Sobell House (the local hospice that has been so great in their care of dad over the past few years).

Anyway, dad asked me to post a short message from him to thank you all for everything. You made it possible for him to see the film by helping us make our request heard by the right people. Marvel have been so very kind, and sent someone round to the house to show dad The Winter Soldier last week. Needless to say, he loved it, and has appreciated every one of your pictures and messages that you’ve been sending in – we’ve been sharing as many as possible with him, and the collages I’ve made with them are just about the most beautiful and happy-making things imaginable. You are all so awesome. So here’s dad’s message:


Watching The Winter Soldier again, this time with dad (without a doubt the most special film screening I will ever experience), made me realise the reason I love Captain America is because of his heroic capacity for empathy. Yes, he’s all about the pursuit and protection of moral goodness, truth, and justice, but he’s not blindly idealogical about it. He really looks at people and tries to understand where they are coming from and why they’re acting a certain way. SPOILER ALERT for those of you who haven’t seen the film yetHis empathy for the ‘Winter Soldier’, who acts for all intents and purposes like an empty shell of a man, a mere killing machine, and gives Rogers no logical reason to believe there is any hope left for him, is a beautiful example of what Mark Manson is saying about the importance of empathy in this article about high school shootings in the USA.

Empathy is probably the most important quality for anyone who is suffering in any way, and it is also so easily misunderstood, or replaced with something subtly and yet crucially different. It is vital to get empathy right, as the video, above, and this recent article from Verily about being a friend to someone with depression, explain. When faced with someone else’s suffering, it can be so tempting to give advice, or to try and ‘fix’ things. I do it all the time. But we have to try and avoid that temptation, and put empathy first. To do that is to make yourself extremely vulnerable, like Rogers when he refuses to fight Bucky back in The Winter Soldier – a tough ask, but an important one.

‘When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.’
– Henri Nouwen

Last week I asked team #CapForStrat what, in their experience, were the most helpful things people had done for them and their loved ones when they were going through a hard time. I wanted to start that conversation because the avalanche of passionate support from people who know our family, and also from total strangers, has proved how much pent up frustration we all have about the fact that we want to help cancer patients but more often than not don’t know how. I really think that the energy everyone attacked mission #CapForStrat with shows that everyone really just wants to know how they can help.

Unfortunately, all of us know someone – more likely several people – touched by cancer, so I’m hoping that the conversation we started here can be useful to everyone who comes into contact with #CapForStrat. As I said, it all comes back down to empathy – listening, often silently, and being truly open to the needs of the person/people you’re trying to help. When you really empathise and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you suddenly become aware of all sorts of little practical things that you can do to make a positive difference, without just sweeping in with your preconceived idea of what will help and actually causing more difficulties and stress in the process. I’m still learning all about this, and make mistakes every day, but I feel like the experiences people shared on Twitter really helped me, and I hope you find it helpful, too, whatever situation you’re in.

I asked:

How to help someone with cancer CapForStrat

And people replied:

How to help someone with cancer CapForStrat

How to help someone with cancer CapForStrat

How to help someone with cancer CapForStrat

How to help someone with cancer CapForStrat

How to help someone with cancer CapForStrat

We have been so very blessed with kind and empathetic friends to help us through this difficult time, bringing food and cake, driving us to the hospital sometimes when we need that, and all kinds of things – and I hope that one of the good effects of our story going viral can be that it inspires the sharing of that kind of support to other people suffering in similar situations around the world. I think the key really is empathy, and not thinking that you know what is best in a situation but listening to what the cancer patient and their primary carer/closest loved ones are really saying that they need.

The best bit of all of this for me, apart from obviously making dad smile with the pictures and the film, has been seeing on that stats page of this blog that people are clicking through to read about the symptoms of prostate cancer. Hard, concrete evidence that because of everything that has happened with dad, people are informing themselves about what this cancer looks like, so that they can be aware for themselves and/or for the men in their lives.

Before dad had cancer, I used to kind of wonder what people meant by ‘cancer awareness’ – I mean, everyone is ‘aware’ in a vague sense what cancer is, and that lots of people are affected by it. But awareness is a far more practical thing than that. Prostate cancer was just not on our radar in dad’s case. He was checked for bowel cancer, because that runs in his family, and we breathed a sigh of relief when he was cleared for that. It’s not a case of becoming a hypochondriac, but healthy awareness means taking the signs your body is showing seriously, being aware of what could be an issue for your age/sex, and having the right tests done in good time.

As I’ve said before, we didn’t know that blood tests don’t always show that you have prostate cancer in time. If enough people know that, perhaps some lives can be saved. And, if I dare generalise a little here, it seems to me that men are a little behind in the health consciousness game. Prostate cancer is an awful disease to get; even if it’s caught in time to save your life, the treatment means that your life will never be the same again. Perhaps this is why men are so reluctant to think about it. But it’s better to catch it early than to stick your head in the sand and risk catching it after metastasis has occurred and the cancer has spread too far to be stopped.

A Better Place logo CapForStrat cancer environment

I’ve been rambling on for far too long, but I just wanted to mention one final thing. Some friends and I are working on creating a new ethical lifestyle website later this year that will be dedicated to dad, who always taught my sisters and I to try and leave the world a better place than we found it. We believe that every little choice we make each day has the potential to change the world, and that by choosing ethically produced products we can harness the power of consumerism and use it to make a difference.

I really think that the extreme rise in cancer rates in modern times must be linked with all sorts of environmental factors, and I hope that this project can contribute in some way to that conversation and enable us all to find lifestyle solutions that don’t have such a negative impact on the environment and our own bodies. The blackberry motif is inspired by dad’s love of the autumn berries, and sweet memories of foraging for the fruit in the brambles together. If you’re interested in following what we’re doing here, please ‘like’ the Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter.

Thank you, once again, from the bottom of our hearts for all your kindness, interest, and support! Sophie x

Iron Man CapForStrat cover Marvel fan cancer hero

Posted by someone awesome on Twitter with the caption ‘A brave man deserves a cover’. Thank you, friend!


Our secret weapon, or Making lemonade

People often think that ‘fearlessness’ means not being afraid of anything, but I don’t think that’s true. If it was just a quality you were either born with or not, there wouldn’t be anything very empowering about it. I think the whole wonder of it is that you can live fearlessly in spite of fear; as John Wayne put it, ‘Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.’

Similarly, I don’t think people are born with either cynical or trusting natures. You might be more disposed to one or the other mindset, and life and circumstance might have taught you to be more one than the other, but while we are all very keen to label ourselves and others as either a cynic or a Pollyanna, a pessimist or an optimist, I think we have to be careful not to be limited by these labels. If we believe that these things are attributes, fixed, inflexible traits that are inherent to who we are, we can feel either trapped in cycles of negativity, or floored by the experience of pain and depression when it hits us unexpectedly.

I have accepted fear as a part of life quote Sophie Caldecott something for a rainy day blog

I have always considered myself a ‘glasses half full’ kind of person, and have often been gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocked by people who consider themselves to be more of the ‘worldly-wise’ mould for being what they think of as naive. (I prefer the phrase, from I Capture the Castle, ‘consciously naive’, myself, for reasons that will become clear later.) Recently, though, I’ve been challenged by the experiences of dad’s cancer and the hormonal ups and downs of sleep deprivation and having a new baby to rethink what all those inspirational quotes I usually love so much mean when they say things like ‘Choose Joy!’. To someone in the depths of a dark situation, no matter how naturally optimistic they may consider themselves, hearing snappy mantras telling you that you can just change your mood if only you want it enough, grates like hell.

In A Grief Obsevered, C. S. Lewis writes: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says… Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.’

C. S. Lewis was writing about grief after the death of a loved one, and yet reading those words a few weeks ago when we had just had the news that dad was in the final stages of cancer, I had the uncanny feeling he was reading my mind. I realised I had started mourning pre-emptively before it was time. It made me so sad to think that I might waste these precious days, weeks, months, trapped inside my own grief, unable to reach out and make the most of the time we had left together.

I realised, then, that while you can’t choose to feel joy, you can choose to act as if you choose joy. To quote Lewis again, because he just gets it: ‘Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.’

The same applies with choosing to act in joy. Joy is not about feeling happy, per se. This revelation was completely ‘game changing’ for me; it means that no one, however evil, and no circumstances, however bad, can ever take away my joy, my power and ability to impact things for the better. It means men and women can withstand even the worst of times, through suffering and even extreme vulnerability – the kind of vulnerabilities of illness and old age that our culture conditions us to be squeamish about, to wish we could shut away and not face. That’s an instinct we all have to fight, because, as this beautiful video (shared with me by a kind stranger on Twitter) says, ‘While we live, let us live.’

Having said all of that, I feel it’s important to point out that choosing to act like an optimist doesn’t mean being stupid or unrealistic. For goodness’ sake, don’t get in the van with the strange man just because, as a general rule, you trust in the goodness of humanity.* Keep your bag firmly shut and safe, especially when you’re in a busy city. Don’t walk home late at night through a dodgy area alone. Learn self defense, and be sensible. It is clear that like the powers of the superheroes and villains of the comic book universe my family love so much, something like Twitter, for example, can be used for great good or great evil.

The point is this: you might not always be able to control how you feel, and sometimes life will be hard, very hard, and you’ll feel blue. But all too often, we think that what we feel is the final word on things, that feelings dictate our actions whether we like it or not. I don’t buy that.

No matter how you feel, you always have the choice to act fearlessly – that is, as if you had joy – and that, my friends, can be our secret weapon in hard times. Grief drains you of energy, takes away your ability to do even the smallest and simplest of tasks. Joy is the opposite. Joy gives life and energy, and can result in great things that we might have thought were limited to our imagination and day-dreams. Live fearlessly, and don’t let the cynics shame you into inaction. What’s the worst that can happen? You might look a little silly. I feel pretty confident in saying, now, that it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

What the mind can conceive Verily daily dose CapForStrat Sophie Caldecott

Another one of Verily’s daily doses – these quotes have seemed like eerily accurate fortune cookie messages to me over the past few weeks


*A slightly tangential point, but related: there’s a common misunderstanding that people who believe in general in the goodness in people are stupid, and likely to be robbed blind or taken advantage of. I’ve found that actually the contrary can be true – if you expect the best in people, whilst also being sensible and aware of the bad that certainly does exist, you will often draw out the good in people. It’s like Steinbeck wrote: ‘In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.’